Friday, December 10, 2010

Going Outback Bowling in Florida

The young genius who is quitting will face the old genius who refuses to quit.

Amazingly, after an up and down season, a 7-5 Penn State team has earned a New Year's Day bowl in Florida.  The Nittany Lions will be playing the Florida Gators, a 7-5 team coached by Urban Meyer that has had its own ups and downs. They will meet at the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.

And, announced this week, it will be Urban Meyer's last game.  He has just resigned as head coach of the Florida Gators.   It doesn't sound like he will change his mind this time.  He is 46 years old.  Joe Paterno will be 84 when this bowl game is played, and he has no intention of resigning.

Personally, we had been hoping for the Insight bowl in Arizona.  I don't see the big deal any more about a New Year's Day bowl, now that the bowl season has so many games through January 10.  Arizona was our preference because our son and his family - our grandchildren - live there.  We could have enjoyed a nice Christmas with them, taken them to the bowl, visited friends in the Phoenix area.   Maybe we could have done a little gambling in Arizona or perhaps even have headed to Las Vegas for a few days.  But alas, that was not to be.

The Gator Bowl was our second choice.  We haven't spent much time in the Jacksonville area.  In the past we have spent a night or two at Jekyll Island Georgia and in Saint Augustine Florida as we have traveled to the Tampa area by car.  They seemed like magical places especially at Christmas with all the neat decorations.  So thinking that we might wind up at the Gator Bowl, I did some research into beach vacation spots and started getting excited about our Christmas vacation there.

We have been to all three Outback Bowls featuring Penn State, and we have visited the Tampa-Clearwater-St. Petersburg area on numerous other occasions because my parents lived there in their retirement years. 

Our first Outback Bowl was a January 1, 1996 43-14 drubbing of Auburn, in a torrential rainstorm.  It was a fun win, but it was by far the wettest game we have ever experienced, with  thunderstorms looming in the area throughout the game. More than six inches of rain fell that day.  Players slipped and slid and had a great time splashing in the mud in what became known as Penn State's "Mud Bowl".

What I remember most about that bowl game was that it took more than a week for my shoes to dry out. We were staying with my mom for that game, and I had brought no other shoes.  I had to run to the nearest discount store to buy something cheap to wear on my feet for the rest of that vacation.

A few years later, on January 1, 1999, we beat Kentucky 26-14.  What stands out in my mind about that bowl was the enthusiasm of the Kentucky Wildcat fans, who were participating in their first New Year's Day bowl in 48 years. 

In comparison, Penn State fans were a bit spoiled back then.  In the prior five years, we had gone bowling every year on New Year's Day.  We went to the Rose Bowl in 1995, the Outback in 1996, the Fiesta in 1997, the Citrus in 1998, and in 1999 we were back in Florida for the second year in a row.

The contrast in fan enthusiasm was pronounced.  Many Penn State fans stayed home, and the ones who were there were decidedly low-key.

Raymond James Stadium seemed like a Kentucky home game.  A New Year's Eve Parade in Ybor City was completely dominated by Kentucky fans.

We didn't go back to the Outback Bowl again until 2007.  That was after the "dark years", a period of time between 2000-2004 when Penn State managed a winning record and a bowl appearance only once - in the 2002 season, when we appeared in the Capital One Bowl and lost 13-9 to Auburn.

Our final Outback Bowl appearance was also one year after the amazing turnaround of the 2005 season, that resulted in a fantastic 26-23 third overtime win in the BCS Orange Bowl on January 3, 2006.

Penn State fans were decidedly more enthusiastic that year, and showed up in force to watch us beat Tennessee 20-10.  It was a fun bowl game.

The Outback Bowl does a nice job.  The stadium venue - the relatively new Raymond James Stadium - is top-notch.  Getting to the stadium is easy, with plenty of convenient parking.

There are plenty of options for places to stay in and around the Tampa-Clearwater-Saint Petersburg area. And there are plenty of things to do.

I can't talk about the Outback Bowl, however, without remembering my mother, Flo MacDougall.

Mom loved it whenever Penn State played a bowl game in Florida.  That meant that we would visit her for Christmas and possibly New Year's Eve.

To give her credit, she didn't wish for Penn State to lose so we would head to Florida. But there were times when she couldn't hide her disappointment when it was announced that Penn State was heading west, to the Alamo or Fiesta or Rose Bowl.

She especially liked it if we played in the Outback Bowl because she would insist that we attend her New Year's Eve party at her independent living center, an elderly housing complex.  Typical of elderly housing centers, this party began at 5 p.m. and "midnight" was declared at 7 p.m.  There was a pretty terrible third-rate band and a lot of dancing by people who were, frankly, older than dirt. 

My mom loved these parties, and so did everyone else.  In her later years she was a "merry widow" who loved telling jokes, was rather a flirt, and she enjoyed dancing with the few male bachelors who lived there.  I remember one New Year's Eve when she got up and announced to all who would listen, "I remember all the men I've kissed.  I apologize to those I've missed."

On those New Year's Eves we would go to her party and then return to our hotel at about 7:30 p.m., "midnight" having already been declared, and have a few celebratory New Year's Eve drinks.

Then we would watch whatever New Year's Eve Bowl games were on TV.  The next day we would get up early to cross Tampa Bay and drive to the Outback Bowl for an 11 a.m. game, while my mom watched it from home on TV.    She never wanted to go to the game with us, claiming she didn't like crowds.  Then after the game we would head to her apartment, and watch the rest of the New Year's Day bowl games with her.

We would then take her to her favorite restaurant, the E&E Stakeout Grill, where she would order the most expensive thing on the menu, eat only a little bit of it, and take the rest home.  She would plan to savor that one meal for at least two other occasions.

One of our favorite pre-game activities sponsored by the Outback Bowl is Beach Day at the Hilton on Clearwater Beach, and we would bring Mom to enjoy this because it was quite accessible.  This year it will be held on December 30.

At this event members of both football teams and marching bands spend the day at the beach, and it's a relaxed afternoon.  Both bands perform.  There are sky-divers and other events like a tug of war between the teams.  On a sunny day it's a lot of fun.   Definitely, if you're in the area, plan to go.

I have to thank my Mom for introducing us to the following restaurants that have become favorites over the years.  If you are staying across the bay in the Clearwater area then check them out:

The E&E Stakeout Grill  - 100 N. Indian Rocks Road, Belleair Bluffs, Florida 727-585-6399.  Excellent steaks and seafood.  Reservations strongly recommended.  Check out their menu at

Guppy's on the Beach Grill and Bar - 1701 Gulf Boulevard, Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, 727-593-2032.  A sister restaurant to the E&E, this one has a nice outdoor patio area and emphasizes more seafood choices.  Across the street from the beach.

Bonefish Grill, 2939 West Bay Drive, Belleair Bluffs, Florida 727-518-1230.  Great seafood.  The crabmeat-corn chowder is to die for.

The Wine Cellar, 17307 Gulf Boulevard, North Redington Beach, Florida 727-393-3491.  This was my mom's favorite restaurant, a European style restaurant that has a formal style to it and a bit of a German flair to its menu.  The bar often has live entertainment that caters to a decidedly senior set. It's got very good food and a great wait staff.

For this year's Outback Bowl, we plan to spend some time in the Clearwater area enjoying some of our favorite places and remembering my Mom fondly.

Then we will head to Tampa for a few nights and enjoy a different experience than in the past, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city of Tampa.

Go Penn State!  Beat the Gators!

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